The Project

This section of the website explores the background, processes, responses and outcomes of the research project so far.

There is an alternative means of exploring these matters through a group of video recordings:

Investigating late medieval worship: four aspects of the research process

1. Making: Artefacts, organ and vestments
2. Doing: Liturgical enactments
3. Responding: Participants and researchers
4. Reflecting: Outcomes and experiences

Introduction and Overview

Cathedrals and churches: the imprint of medieval religious life and culture

The most extensive, accessible, visible and material evidence of medieval religious life and culture is to be found in the cathedrals and parish churches which still stand, numbered in their thousands. They may have been altered, enlarged, reconfigured or heavily restored; but their medieval core will at least be discernible and often visually dominant. In any part of England or Wales (as in many parts of western Europe), within a five-mile radius you will almost certainly be within striking distance of a church of medieval origin, and probably as many as five, or even many more in a city like Norwich or York.

A building has architectural and cultural purpose and meaning in itself; but it is also shaped by the use for which it is intended. The primary use of a medieval church was for Christian worship, indeed a range of different kinds of worship variously (and very often simultaneously) communal, collective and individual – a plurality of intentions, actions and rituals within the same building.

The stone framework of medieval worship is often remarkably well preserved in surviving cathedral and church buildings: the same is not true of the furnishings, sculptures, decoration, artefacts, vestments and books, the majority of which were disposed of between the 1530s and the 1570s; and, if not then, in the 1640s and 1650s.

Investigating the Medieval Experience of Worship

What was it like to be in a church in the Middle Ages? What did you see around you? What did you hear, sense and feel? At one level at least, these are unanswerable questions, because the lost past is irrecoverable. But imagination has always been a crucial tool for historians seeking to understand the past – imagination combined with the evidence that can be garnered from what does survive. That is what this research project is about. But in asking these questions, and in combining imagination with evidence in seeking to answer them, it goes beyond the written narrative of historical study: it seeks to address the questions directly by active participation in the processes of making and enacting: enriching a medieval space with the furnishings, artefacts, vestments and books; filling it with the sights, sounds and sensory experience of medieval worship; and populating it by being the people performing and attending medieval liturgies.

Enactment as one Constituent Part of The Investigation

Broadcasts, recordings, concerts and acts of worship have over recent decades sought to bring to life liturgies of the past in a historical context. Most have had a musical emphasis, whether on plainchant, medieval or early polyphony, or using a single composer’s work like Monteverdi’s Vespers. For the most part, such projects have had the performance of the liturgy as their goal.

This project has been different. The performance of the liturgies has marked only one stage, albeit a crucial and focal point in the project.

There has been a series of goals leading up to liturgical enactment

– as texts have been researched, assembled, interpreted and made usable;
– as each item – furniture, vestment or artefact – has been researched, commissioned, made and in some cases decorated;
– as those preparing the enactments have considered the reconciliation of generic directions in the medieval texts to the realities of the configuration of the specific space, and the human resource available;
as each participant has not only learnt their part, but thought about the medieval context (professional, social, religious) in which it is located.

In the preparation and rehearsal of each liturgy (and where they were repeated, between each enactment), there have been questions raised: should it be done this way or that way? – questions asked collectively, by constituent groups of clergy, servers, singers, and congregation, and individually by each participant.

All through each enactment, and especially afterwards in response and reflection individually, in small groups and collectively, observations have been made, questions posed, and challenges raised; and recognition either at the time or later that some things might not have been right, or might have been done differently.

In some cases, the outcome has been a new line of investigation. For instance, what was the physical relationship between singers and the text they read from, singly and sharing from a single book on a large lectern? How far did the pace of singing or playing relate to the length of a specific ritual action – and what happened if one overran the other? What was the extent of medieval memory of texts and chants, and how did that affect both performance and overall experience? How might modern lack of familiarity with medieval practice reveal aspects that would have been so normative at the time as to escape notice and comment?

The longer process of revisiting, interpreting, investigating and analysing the outcomes, observations, questions and challenges is ongoing, both within individual scholarly disciplines, and between and across them.

The resources available on this website will, it is hoped, offer new opportunities for others to investigate, question, challenge, reflect, interpret and analyse – albeit at a remove from the actuality of enactment in the project. Or they may provide either resource or model for other enactments in different medieval spaces, leading to further or new research and investigation.